Our first view of our cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas was as she sailed into Sydney harbour at dawn on the day of our departure. It was a thrill to see her from our hotel window as she crept towards the Sydney Opera House and round towards her berth at Circulur Quay.
Our transfer was booked with the Royal Caribbeans agent, due at 11.15 but by 11.30 and having checked in the lobby we realised that it wasnt coming so grabbed a taxi down to the quay, to join a rather long queue of people waiting to board. We had been given the necessary paperwork at the hotel, so we didnt have to complete anything further, but it was unseasonably cold waiting in line - Australia was having the coldest summer in 50 years!!! After about an hour and a half we found ourselves on board and in our cabins, and within a short time (it seemed) our luggage was delivered and we were able to unpack. The cabin was spacious, though we had a minor difficulty in that I was sharing with my brother and the bed had been made up as a double, so we had to wait until the evening for single beds to be organised. However, there was plenty of space for clothes and cases, and my parents were in the cabin next door, so by departure we were organised and ready to experience that wonderful feeling of sailing out of Sydney harbour, passing the bridge and the opera house, and out through the "heads". It was fantastic.
First evening was casual wear, dinner first sitting was in the dining room at 6.00pm and we had chosen to sit at a table of 8 and we were lucky that our companions were good company and very interesting to talk to. The food was very good, with something to suit everybodies taste. Our waiter Ganash, and the assistant waiter Shanshan were very very good, and took care of our every need for the whole time we were on board. Shanshan in particular was a delight, always smiling and happy to please. All meals really were quite superb, and I think the only one we were slightly disappointed in was Christmas day, and we did think that the desserts maybe were not so good towards the end of the holiday, with a lot of ice creams, and sponge type puddings being produced - not to our taste - but none the less its an incredible feat to produce that quantity and quality of food for 2400 people every day. We ate most evenings in the formal dining room, but lunches we enjoyed in the Windjammer which had every variety of food imaginable - and where you could eat as much and as often as you wanted. The variety on offer, and again the quality offered, was outstanding and a credit to the chefs who produced it every day. Everything was always spotlessly clean, and the staff were always on hand to help. Eating there was a real pleasure, and of course being at the front of the ship gave spectacular views as well!
We were disappointed with the entertainment on board - the "Cruise Director" Anna was very much "hydi hi" and all a bit low brow. I know its personal taste but at 56 I dont like being referred to as "luvvie". We found her style of entertainment rowdy and trashy, and not any where near our expectations - but it could be that we are old fashioned in hoping that there would be proper quality shows, certainly many guests seemed to enjoy her level of entertainment and the pool side things she did seemed to attract a crowd, but mostly youngsters or twenty and thirty year olds who enjoy that sort of thing. We certainly felt that for such a beautiful ship the entertainment was the biggest let down, and no where near the standard it should be. Foot stomping and yelling in a theatre is absolutely not something I enjoy, and my parents were aghast. It was a great shame. However, having said that there were some lovely seating areas around the ship, and the library was beautifully decorated and comfortable, so it was ok for us once we found the theatre wasnt our thing.
We loved the excursions to the islands that we visited. The trip to Amadee lighthouse is just amazing - the island so beautiful and the water so clear it was breathtaking. The lunch laid on is very good, and the dancing by the girls is just a delight, and all such a suprise. It was very unexpected and the whole day was a lovely experience. Mystery Island was also lovely, though we stayed on the quiet side away from the crowds....the little market was interesting and the islanders are friendly, though you couldnt help a pang of concience at what we may be doing to their way of life. Are they truly happy to see us invading their islands? What would be tragic is to turn these tiny bits of paradise into Blackpool on Sea! Island of Pines is another level altogether and though stunningly beautiful it has tourism and hotels already, so how long it will stay that way is questionable. The water was wonderful to swim in, and the sandy beaches divine. The islanders greeted us with flowers and song, and for a few dollars you could get your passport stamped with the island stamp - sadly we were unaware of this, so not able to take that important little memento with us. Vanuatu was another matter altogether, and not just because it was raining torrentially (yes December is their rainy season so not sure why it is included in the trip as you have to sail some distance to reach it, when it would have been more enjoyable to stay at Lifou an extra day) but also because you are greeted by very pushy and almost agressive men gathered at the port enclosure fence who shout at you incessantly from the first minute...we found it to be daunting and really a bit frightening being exposed to that...and the market at the waters edge is a bit tacky and the islanders seemed to be rather sullen, though when spoken to were friendly enough. Having missed our arranged and paid for excursion due to the confusion about the weather and the late arrival in the port, my mother and I ventured out to have a look at the market and rather stupidly decided to risk a taxi "just there and back" to at least get a glimpse of Port Vila a few miles away. There must have been 50 taxis queuing up, and we were approached by a driver who seemed to give a reasonable quote. I explained we only wanted to drive to town and straight back - but as we walked towards the line of vehicles I just knew that we would end up with the one held together by fresh air and rust and holes! It was almost funny, and in truth the driver did his best to show us around the town and its highlights, but it should be said that there are more pot holes in Port Vila than anywhere else on earth - and in pouring rain too, it wasnt the best trip. What was most worrying though was the way our ten dollar trip turned into 50 dollars .... and the face of the driver was frightening enough when I queried it, that we just paid up and got out as quickly as we could - it was stupid and I could have kicked myself for being so naive. Having travelled extensivly and lived abroad for many years I really shouldnt have been caught out like that, but there you are. It happened, and we took photos of the town as we drove round in the rain, and we saw something we would not have seen had we stayed on board, but at a price!I cant say that I would return to Vanuatu - but maybe we didnt see the best of it. It looked shoddy, run down and depressed and had none of the atmosphere of the other islands we visited. Our favourite island was without a doubt Lifou - and although there is great confusion about trips and car hire with no one seeming to know what is going on, in fact our driver Henri was just a lovely man, who took us around the island on what should have been a two hour trip, but which he extended to 3 hours without a care, and though he barely spoke any English and we spoke only a little remembered French, we had a fabulous time with him. What other taxi driver would take you to a beach with powder white sand, turquoise sea, let you swim for an hour, and then take you to get a cold beer - and still show no hurry to get back to collect new passengers! It was the most perfect day and I would go back in a heart beat.
The ships crew were fantastic in getting us into the islands - they use the lifeboats as tenders, and they run frequently from ship to shore so you can go back for lunch or whatever as often as you like. Its all done with great care and even my mother who is not agile was able to enjoy the whole experience with no worries about disembarking as the crew helped her at every stage. We never had to wait long as things were organised well, but it may be we were lucky with our timing as we heard others complaining of waiting in the stairwells for two hours to board a tender.
To summarise: as first timers it took us a few days to settle in and find our way around, and to realise what we would enjoy and what we would dislike. Overall the holiday was absolutely wonderful, and the ship is just lovely. I would cruise on her again tomorrow - and hope to do just that in the future. HOWEVER my BIG complaint is smokers! I paid for the trip for my parents and my brother, and it was a HUGE amount of money. I chose the cabins with balconies specifically because I know that as a family we enjoy our privacy and I wanted us to be able to have the choice of sitting quietly in our own space to enjoy a drink or breakfast or whatever...a snooze, or a bit of peace and quiet after a busy day. We all work and work hard, and this was meant to be the holiday of a life time - certainly my parents could not afford to do this again, and I will not be in a position to pay for everyone again unless I win the lottery. It was special. It was also totally spoilt by the two smokers in the next cabin - who were on their balcony by 4.30 most mornings and chain smoked till they went to bed. As a result we were unable AT ALL to sit on either of our balconies, as their smoke was wafted in by the draught caused by the ship - they were next door and upwind. We were not even able to have our balcony doors open as their smoke invaded our cabins....not once in 10 days!! In that sense our holiday experience was compromised badly and our enjoyment of the cabins, the extra I paid for the balconies, was never realised. We would and could have had the same holiday but at a fraction of the price if we had been on deck 2 with no windows.